The Issue: School Funding, What's Good Enough?

The Arizona Republic
Wednesday, May 2, 2007

At least three questions remain unanswered eight years after Arizona changed the way it funds school construction.

What's good enough?

How much inequity is acceptable?

How do you pay the increasing costs?

It's time to talk about the answers.

But first, a nod to history.

In the early 1990s, poor school districts couldn't raise enough money from local property taxes to afford safe and decent schools. Meanwhile, wealthy districts bought gold-plated bells and whistles. This was not the "general and uniform" school system the state Constitution mandates.

In 1994, the state Supreme Court said, "Fix it."

The question became: What's good enough?

The court ruled on a case that was about gross inequities in school buildings, but ultimately, the courts required Arizona to fund adequacy not equity.

Standards were set. The state agreed to fund repairs at rundown schools, provide "building renewal" money to keep them up and pay for new schools to meet a standard of adequacy.

Tim Hogan is the attorney with the Center for Law in the Public Interest that brought the initial lawsuit. He says the solution benefited low-wealth schools by eliminating some of the most glaring problems, like exposed wiring and sewage on the playground. But the building-renewal fund has not been adequately funded, so he's back in court.

What's more, Hogan says, the minimum standards for schools were adequate when the law was passed, but they have not been reviewed or revised. Nor have they kept up with the cost of construction.

Scott Thompson is director for business at Dysart Unified School District, one of the fastest growing in the Valley. He says that, up until about 2003, state funding was enough to build a school to the district's satisfaction, excluding the cost of playgrounds. Since then, it hasn't been.

To make up for the gap in funding, Dysart became one of the 36 districts in Maricopa County that went to voters for bonds totaling more than $2 billion in the past two years.

But keep in mind that the standards were not meant to fund everything, says Kevin McCarthy, president of Arizona Tax Research Association. The state agreed to pay for basic schools, he says. George Cunningham, top budget adviser for Gov. Janet Napolitano, says the state has been able to fund schools to the standard that was set. If districts want to go beyond that, it's their dollar.

That brings up the next question: How much inequity is acceptable?

As long as districts are able to tap voters for extra funding, inequities based on property wealth will continue to grow just as they did under the old system. With so many districts going to voters to fund what they consider basic construction costs, it suggests the standards may be so low that wealth-poor districts are already at a disadvantage.

How do you pay increasing costs?

Costs for school construction will continue to increase in this fast-growing state. The state pays those costs from the General Fund, but that means the rising costs of school construction have to compete with all other needs.

Napolitano supports debt financing for school construction, in part, because a 30-year payback would ensure that the newcomers who sent their children to Arizona's schools would help pay for those schools. There is a strong sentiment in the Republican-led Legislature for pay-as-you-go funding, and that view is expected to prevail in next year's budget.

Competing for General Fund dollars can leave school construction at a disadvantage, so some, including the governor, favor a dedicated funding source. Impact fees for new development, a dedicated sales tax or statewide property tax are among the possibilities.

Lawmakers are discussing increased funding for school construction as part of budget negotiations. That's fine.

But policymakers and elected officials ought to begin broader discussions. Napolitano directed the School Facilities Board to prepare a report by Oct. 1 that could help guide the conversation. The Senate is also considering forming a study committee to inform a discussion.

The questions that remain eight years after Arizona launched a new way to pay for building schools are not going to go away.

Editorials represent the opinion of the newspaper, whose Editorial Board consists of: Robert J. Dickey, John Zidich, Joanna Allhands, Monica Alonzo-Dunsmoor, Steve Benson, Phil Boas, Ward Bushee, Richard de Uriarte, Jennifer Dokes, Joe Garcia, Cindy Hernandez, Kathleen Ingley, Robert Leger, Doug MacEachern, Joel Nilsson, Ed Perkins, Robert Robb, Bob Schuster, Linda Valdez and Ken Western.

CAPTION: Teachers at New River Elementary School are concerned about how to accommodate new students from the Anthem area, a booming community seven miles to the south.